For some, life could literally become a cakewalk. In the days of enslaved labor, there were plantation songs & dances created by the slaves. One of these dances was the “cakewalk“. This was a lampoon of the European ballroom dances that their masters held. Every movement in the dance was overexaggerated in the slave’s simulation of the white ruling class & their style of dance. All of the mannerisms of the privileged were emulated as well. Although these were satires of their masters, the slave’s owners sponsored these contests which were originally called “chalk-line walks. The winner of these slave contests would get a cake as the prize. Hence, the name cakewalk was born. It is also believed that the american expression “that takes the cake” came from the cakewalk. But something far more special to American culture had its roots in the music that accompanied the cakewalk dance.
Ragtime music is akin to the two-step & cakewalks. If you love jazz, then you know that rags were the precursor to this great American art form. There was a wonderful movie called ” Ragtime” that traces the life of Scott Joplin who is known as one of the greatest composers of ragtime music. Cakewalk music is the forefather of ragtime. Here is a link to a great website that discusses the history of the cakewalk. (http://www.basinstreet.com/cakewalk.htm). These dances were generally held on Sundays as a form of recreation for the slaves. It was also a form of entertainment for the folks who were the caricatures,the slave masters. Cakewalks may have been a early form of black humor as well. The slaves may have taken some delight in the opportunity to poke fun at those who kept them in bondage. During those slave contests, they were able to imitate the lavish lifestyles that they had no part of. Lives that were filled with such negativity were able to find some humor in it due to these cakewalks. At least, that is the belief. There is another school of thought when it comes to the subject of cakewalks. The cakewalk may have been a source of humiliation. I think it may have been a bit of both depending on who the participants were.
There are some who can find some hilarity in life no matter how downtrodden they are. Some people don’t let circumstances control their outlook on life and others do. Isn’t it ironic that we define “cakewalk” as an easy victory? In actuality, a cakewalk was a difficult strutting dance invented by slaves who had an arduous existence. For those slaves, life was a cakewalk on special occassions & Sundays. It was an interruption from the strenuous work in the fields. From those cakewalks, many American traditions & art forms emerged. For more information on how minstrel shows sprung from these slave dance contests go to :http://www.aliciapatterson.org/APF0204/Watkins/Watkins.html Lastly, the cakewalk is a very painful reminder of slave life for many blacks especially during the civil rights era. Many feel that it gives credence to stereotypes of blacks that have persisted since slavery until the present. “Sambo” is the one stereotype that could have been enhanced by these cakewalks. A “Sambo” is a black slave who whites defined as at ease with his life of servitude. The laughter & comradery present at these cakewalks helped advance the claim that blacks were comfortable being slaves. This was not the true position of blacks. Slavery was an absolutely miserable lowly life. Even though the cakewalk may have started out as a parody of whites, it ultimately became a parody of blacks as it evolved into minstrel shows. There is more detailed information on black stereotypes here(http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/coon/ ) The historical challenges that black Americans faced gave birth to some great forms of artistic expression like blues & jazz. Who would have thought that the history of American music sprung from a “cakewalk”?
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